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Ex head of MI6 argues Brexit would not harm security

Security is one of the biggest issues in the Brexit debate. According to some, such as David Cameron, leaving the EU would threaten Britain’s national security, whereas others believe it would either have no influence or be beneficial. In an article for Prospect Magazine, Richard Dearlove sided with the latter, arguing that Britain’s national security would actually gain from Brexit.

According to the former head of MI6, the UK would gain in two major ways. Firstly, the UK could ‘dump the European Convention on Human Rights’, which prolonged the extradition of Abu Hamza. It would also give the UK greater control over immigration from the EU.  Supporters of Britain’s EU membership, such as Theresa May, cite the benefits of the European Arrest Warrant as a reason for membership. The EAW has also lead to miscarriages of justice, and Dearlove states that it will not be missed.

On intelligence and security, Dearlove explains relationships between countries work in a way that is mostly outside the EU’s influence. The practical business of counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing is conducted mostly through bilateral relationships, although trilateral relationships also occur. According to Dearlove, these relationships operate under an informal code of conduct called the ‘Third Party Rule’: one nation cannot pass information on to a third without the originator’s agreement. Security partnerships are based more on trust and national interests, rather than a political and economic union like the EU.

The argument that Britain would find it harder to build relationships outside of the EU misunderstands how countries cooperate when it comes to national security. According to Dearlove, Britain is ‘Europe’s leader in international and security matters’. As a result, Britain tends to supply more assistance to European countries than it gets in return. This reliance on British intelligence makes it difficult to imagine that any European country would end their relationships with the UK post-Brexit. On the contrary, it would raise extreme moral questions if an EU country had intelligence of an imminent terrorist attack in the UK but refused to share it because the UK is not an EU member.

The most important intelligence relationship the UK has is with the US, and there is no reason to believe that Brexit would change this. Dearlove argues that all the important aspects of this relationship would remain: ‘the replacement of Trident, the access to overhead satellite monitoring capabilities, the defence exchanges that are hidden from public view, the UK-US co-operation over signals intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency/Secret Intelligence Service/Federal Bureau of Investigation/MI5 liaison and much more would continue as before.’

Because most cooperation between countries happens outside the EU, the EU does not offer much that greatly enhances the UKs national security. The UK participates in various European-based security bodies: the Club de Berne, the Club de Madrid, and the Situation Centre in the European Commission. According to Dearlove, these bodies have no operational capacity and are mainly forums for the exchange of ideas. Europol is one exception, and opinion is mixed on the impact leaving Europol would have on UK security.

On a wider scale, European defence and security policy has also done little to enhance the UK’s national security. Dearlove’s article notes the EU’s failure to conjure any kind of aggregated military power via the Rapid Reaction Force. Britain’s national security relies more on Nato and bilateral relationships with countries such as France.

  • Christian Stensrud